From a small town boy to CEO of Barista Coffee: How this CA transitioned from a CFO to COO to CEO by looking at the bigger picture

Rajat Agrawal, CEO of Barista Coffee Company Limited

  • Coming from a small town, it was a big feat for Rajat Agrawal to work in Ernst & Young and other Big 4 firms. 
  • Rajat is a Chartered Accountant and the CEO of Barista Coffee Company Limited, the leading Café chain in India.
  • When the company faced distressing situations, he looked after strategic planning and created new revenue streams.
  • Rajat believes a true leader should set the right expectations for the team, and help them grow in their career.

Why CFOs are best suited for the role of CEOs

From a small town, with big dreams 

I hail from a small town called Kanpur, located in Uttar Pradesh, India.

I had a knack for finance, so commerce was the ideal choice. 

Also unlike today, where you have hundreds of courses, and digital content, 20 years back there were just CA, MBA, company secretary, and cost accountancy courses.

On top of that, you are limited to very few career paths if you are born in a small town. 

So when I was trying to decide on which course to pick my family steered me in the direction of CA and that's how it started.

I was able to clear my CA exams and became qualified in 2005.

How the Big 4 moulded me into a true leader

My career started off on the right foot, with EY Bangalore in their Assurance practice.  

That was actually the first time I travelled out of Kanpur. So you could say that working in a fancy, global organisation was a pretty big deal for me. 

However, after two years, I moved to the Transaction Advisory Practice at Grant Thornton

And from there my resume grew with financial consulting, strategic planning, corporate governance, and more added onto it. 

The work culture and work ethics that I learned from some of these organizations have truly helped me deliver on the expectations of various stakeholders and employees in my current company. It actually helped me become a dynamic leader.

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Joining the industry after 10 years at Big 4, paid off  

After spending more than 10 years in various Big 4 firms, in 2015 I decided to take up a role outside of Consulting firms. I decided to join the industry.

I moved to Carnation Hospitality Pvt. Ltd. and led the M&A unit there.

Actually, that’s when they were planning to acquire Barista and I played an instrumental role in acquiring the asset. 

(Established in the year 2000, Barista Coffee Company is the pioneer of coffee culture in India. The Barista Coffee Company Limited has over 325 Barista Coffee Espresso Cafe and Barista Coffee Kiosks across India including its Franchise partners. Besides India, Barista Coffee also has cafés in locations across Sri Lanka.)

We also acquired three, or four more brands such as Wendy’s, Jamie's, etc. 

However, within seven, or eight months of joining my role changed and I started looking after the post-deal integrations of the food vertical.

I was stabilizing the business by putting processes in place, and most importantly engaging with the team, to let them know that they are here to stay. Because when it comes to M&A, as soon as you acquire the company, the existing management gets wary of what will happen next.

From Finance to COO to CEO

In 2016, for some reason, some of the stakeholders of Barista moved on.  

And as a result, my day-to-day responsibilities regarding business management increased. 

That's how my role transformed from core finance to business. I started looking after strategic planning and creating new revenue streams for the business, such as adding new verticals.  

Then the dreadful event happened in 2020.  

We all know how much Covid affected the Food and Beverage industry. The strict 20-day lockdown was announced and every store was shut down. People were not allowed to come to the stores and we just had to make peace with the new normal. 

That was the first time, in my 10-plus years of career that the revenue of the organisation was close to zero. As a COO I started looking at the business from the HR perspective, organisational planning perspective.

The learnings were huge on the leadership level. 

Eventually, I gained the confidence and required additional skill sets to drive the organization. I learned to look at the bigger picture. 

And finally, in May 2022 I was promoted to CEO of Barista Coffee Company Limited.

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CFOs are the new CEOs

From what I have seen, the role of the CFO has definitely changed over the years, from being a conventional accountant to forming leading strategies.  

In fact, today's CFOs are best suited for the role of a CEO because they are involved in the business cycle from beginning to end and they know what is more important to driving an organization.

And today with the kind of increasing compliance infrastructure, and risk management infrastructure, where a lot of policies are being made, the CFO can be of great help to the organisation. 

If you look around a lot of CFOs are now getting promoted to CEO because the management is hugely confident about a CFO’s capabilities, knowledge of numbers being one of them.

 If you have that inclination to drive something from beginning to end, you can be a good leader.    

Leadership qualities every CEO should have 

Being a CEO is not rocket science.

The only thing you have to keep in mind is how you manage people’s expectations around you. Nowadays what I am seeing is that organisations are not clear about their expectations of the employees. And that’s where the problem begins.  

Set the right expectations for your team, give them the right goals and help them grow in their career if you were to manage the organisation.

Another tip that I've always kept close to my heart is dividing and analysing.

Chop that problem up into multiple pieces and then analyse. When you solve one tiny problem at a time it helps you find a logical solution much faster.

Start looking at prioritizing, you must figure out what is the most important task, at any given time.  

Young entrepreneurs who are looking to start a business or professionals who are starting their careers should keep these in mind.  

Closing...

Not a lot of people will be there to guide you when you are born in a small town. You have to depend on yourself at the beginning of the journey and find your way through the mass.

Wish I had the privilege to get some guidance early on, as in my community most people stick to only one job for their entire life.

So I think distancing yourself from what the masses are doing should be your best bet. 

Think about how you can improve in your career. That’s how I have become a better version of myself.  

My role is not just limited to creating and dispersing positive energy, it's about developing a team and helping them grow. 

That's what the core role of leadership today is. If the people working under you are giving their best only then the organisation will grow. 

 

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